"The time has come," the Walrus said, "to talk of many phones."
I've been on a quest, dear readers, to find the ultimate in headphone sound. This quest has taken me in many directions, and now is the time to tell you how my journey ends. Why headphones, what's wrong with speakers? Speakers are certainly more comfortable, allow you to walk around more readily and can accommodate multiple listeners. But headphones allow you to listen to music without disturbing others. They can work in any room of the house or accompany you on your walk to work or on the treadmill. Headphones are generally cheaper than speakers and you don't need a powerful amplifier to drive them.
The more important question is, can headphones approach the same quality of musical reproduction as speakers, and can they even improve on that quality? My starting point, as it may be for many headphone enthusiasts, is the German specialist manufacturer Sennheiser, and the legendary HD414 from 1968. These were the world's first open-back headphones, light, comfortable and inexpensive. I have a pair of HD580s here, a much later and more expensive design, although many will prefer the HD600 and HD650 models, which take Sennheiser's open-back design several steps further. But this is not the road I choose to follow, because I don't find the latest Sennheisers comfortable. I find myself bending back the spring until it is too loose to stay in position.
Headphone & Canal Monitor Options
As regular readers will know, the headphones that have become my reference are the AKG K1000s. AKG calls them ear speakers, rather than headphones, and they are correct. Through the magic of architectural design, two speakers are suspended in space an inch from your ears, and by adjusting the toe-in you can vary the bass / treble balance. You drive the K1000s directly from the speaker binding posts of your amplifier. I love these phones, and I find them comfortable for many hours of listening. They sit on top of the head, location assisted by rubber pads that press against the temple. Some cannot adapt to this pressure on the temple – you be the judge. If you are interested in acquiring a pair you had better move quickly. AKG has just ceased production of the K1000 after an extremely long run. These ear speakers are extremely open and detailed. Best of all, they image like speakers rather than phones. They are a bit bass-shy and top heavy. Some have found them an ideal match for low-powered tube amps that roll off gently on top. You can improve the sound by upgrading the cables. I have been using some custom cables that George Cardas prepared specially for me – he is also a fan of the K1000s.
But the search must go on, since I am not satisfied by the bass response and brightness of the AKGs. I'm looking for something more balanced, less geeky looking and not outrageously expensive, while maintaining the AKG's superb imaging, detail and musicality.
The next port of call is to the world of canal earphones with my review of them here. These devices have become extremely popular as partner to the omnipresent iPods. I was delighted with the performance of the $250 Ultimate Ears Super.fi 5 Pro canal phones. They represent a huge improvement over the stock iPod earbuds, but I also tested them in my reference system using a Graham Slee Solo headphone amplifier, to good effect. No, they are not going to replace the AKGs any time soon, the sound being at once lighter in weight and less detailed. The biggest failings however are the inability to throw a fully stable 3D image even on the best recordings, and ultimately, my physical comfort level with this strange object inserted inside my ear. This test gave me an inking of the type of sound I was looking for – balanced across the full frequency band. It was clear what my next step should be.
That Brings Me To Today's Review
They can be used to prevent hearing loss, since they provide such strong isolation from external noise. If you don't take precautions, you're going to experience hearing loss through prolonged exposure to high decibel levels. If you wear earplugs, you won't be able to hear your own voice or instrument. Musicians' earphones solve this problem by providing over 25dB of isolation across the frequency band and reintroducing the musical signal directly into the ear canal at a reasonable level. You can select an earphone that is designed to be most responsive to the frequency range of your voice or instrument. For example, the Westone Elite ES3 ($650) features an intentional bump in the midrange frequency response that is of great benefit to vocalists and guitarists who perform onstage. Therefore, the ES3 is not the best choice for listening to recorded music and will therefore not be included in this review.
The UE-10 Pros sit at the top of a range of 6 custom canal phones from Ultimate Ears, and are balanced for a flat frequency response across the band from 20Hz to 16kHz. These are the subjects of today's review, and I'm not letting them go.
First I must thank the manufacturer for its generosity and patience. Unlike other components, once you make a set of custom earphones, that's it. It's no good for any other set of ears. So providing custom earphones for review is an expensive procedure. I've been keeping my fingers crossed that I would not have to repay this kindness with harsh criticism in the event of unsatisfactory performance. No, that has not been necessary. These phones have lived up to their billing and I'm itching to let you know all the details.
My impressions were taken by Dr. Marshall Chasin of the Musicians' Clinics of Canada. Marshall not only made two sets of impression for me but also gave me a hearing test (I passed – oh ye of little faith) and a copy of his book on hearing Hear The Music. Marshall, thank you. The next step is to send your impressions to the labs for fitting, at which time you select the exact model and finish you prefer. Wait a few weeks and the compact package arrives and you are off to the races.
Now I must tell you that I was misleading in my earlier review of canal earphones. I omitted to tell you that while the canal earphones can be comfortable for long periods, I found they took time to locate properly in the ear canal, sometimes falling out or losing position. When the position of the earphone is the canal is not optimal, you lose the proper sealing, and with it the isolation from external sound and the full bass response. This is not a problem when you are listening from the comfort of your own living room, but it is certainly an issue when you're out and about. The second issue I missed at the time is microphonics. By this I mean that with every footfall, the phones move slightly in the ear canal, and you hear this as a noise during exercise. Custom fit changes all this. It takes just a second to insert the $900 Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro phones, and once in place they stay securely located and the microphonics are virtually eliminated.
As far as I know, these are the most expensive canal earphones made, and at $900 plus the cost of impressions, among the most expensive headphones of any type. It is hard to imagine that these miniature components, large as they may be in comparison to universal canal earphones, can compete with the best in the world. How can you get bass out of something that small?
Put these babies in you ears and they disappear. No other headphones give you this degree of comfort. You are on a tight leash of course with a 50" cord, but George Cardas has come to the rescue again by supplying a wonderful 10' extension cable, terminated at one end by a ⅛" female socket and at the other by a ¼" headphone jack. The only fly in the ointment is the ⅛" jack on the lead from the phones – instead of a straight jack it is right-angled, which makes the join look untidy. With the extension cable in place, and no noticeable impairment to the sound quality resulting from its introduction, I am free to potter around the listening room. It is easy to forget you're wearing these phones, so more than once I've been snapped back to reality when I wandered too far from the headphone amp. As before the primary head amp is the Graham Slee Solo, but I also have the inexpensive battery-powered Grado RA-1 on hand, and I've been using both to good effect for the auditioning sessions.
I must assure you, there is better sound available – for a price. I'm talking about speakers of course. These phones are so good they demand comparison with the best speakers. And next to my Wilson Benesch Act 1s, the dynamic range, high level extension and articulation are both limited. Also I prefer the comfort of the Act 1s. With the Ultimate Ears, it's almost like you are not wearing phones - with the Act 1s, you really aren't. (I'm told this may be true of other speakers too). The best speakers are more open. The ear can't hear beyond 16kHz I'm told, but I have heard a more open sound from the Act 1s, various Martin Logans and a good number of other high-end monitors. You'll be hard pressed to find speakers that extend so cleanly to the lowest octaves however, or that image so precisely. And you won't find any at or anywhere near this price.
On all musical material the UE-10 Pros are involving and natural in balance. How many high-end components can get those two elements right? The UE-10 Pros sail through chamber music (jazz or classical), where they catch the color, texture and placement of the instruments so well. A tougher test is full orchestra, so let's haul out Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in the incomparable Haitink version [Decca 425 066-2]. The dynamic range on this recording is awesome, as it is in the concert hall. Dynamic compression is the enemy of presence and involvement, so it is a fine system indeed that can do justice to a work of this scale. The AKGs have the dynamic range, but the flutes and strings can be shrill at times. The $299 Shure E4Cs sound thin and peaky here, lacking in detail, bass definition and warmth. The $250 Super.fi 5 Pros lack gravitas, fine detail and treble extension. But the UE-10 Pros offer superior string tone, with a stronger attack, a bigger picture altogether due to the superb bass weight, extension and articulation, and a most natural balance between the instruments. Woodwind in particular is superbly reproduced, and the image is coherent and rock solid.
I am not so happy with the UE-10 Pros on top-shy recordings, such as Rubinstein's magisterial performance of Chopin's Funeral March Sonata [JVC JM-XR24008]. To get the best out of this you need something with an open and even upward tilting top end, and the K1000s will do the job nicely. But the Act 1 speakers also do a much better job here, revealing the air in the recording. In my three months with these phones, only about one in ten recordings suffered from this shut-in feeling to any great extent, and the majority of these also suffer through the Act 1s. On the other hand, some noticeably bright recordings actually sounded better balanced on the UE-10 Pros. The Haydn Quartets Opus 32 played on original instruments by the Quattuor Mosaïques [Astrée E8786] sound ideally well balanced on these phones, while they can be unbearably sharp on a lot of systems. I suspect this warm musical balance will be very appealing to tube lovers.
Do I have any advice for Ultimate Ears? Here's my wish list:
I'd like cables available in a much wider range of lengths. 12' would be great for my living room.
I'd like a greater extension at the top end. Say 20Hz to 20kHz (±3dB).
I prefer wider sound holes, as in the Westone EC2s, since they would be easier to keep clean. Yes, wax can be a problem.
Reduce the sensitivity to better match most audiophile head amps.
Think up a zippy name. Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro doesn't cut it.
Removing The Proverbial Elephant
If it turns out these are not the phones for you, that's $900 down the drain, plus the cost and bother of getting impressions made. That's quite a downside. The upside is that this kind of performance usually requires speakers in the five-figure range, plus amplification to match. I love the UE-10 Pros, and I give them my highest recommendation.
Drivers: Triple driver with surface mount crossover network
Frequency response: 20Hz to 16kHz (±3dB)
High Frequency Driver: Balanced armature
Low Frequency Drivers: Dual loaded armature
Input Sensitivity: 119 dB/mW
Impedance: 13.3 Ohms
Cable Length: 46" or 64" available in choice of 5 colors
Input Connector: 1/4-inch stereo plug, 1/8-inch stereo adapter included
Noise Isolation: 26dB
Cleaning tool: Wax removal tool
Travel Case: Engraved carrying case
Standard finishes: 13 color options, including clear, plus 2 color swirls
Warranty: 1 year + 30 day warranty against poor fit.